Last year, Joe Swanberg, the indie filmmaking titan and godfather of the so-called mumblecore movement, made a slight bid for the mainstream with “Drinking Buddies”—a more conventional romantic comedy that featured recognizable actors (like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick) and a wide-ish release courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. But apparently the siren song of a shoestring budget, non-professional actors and a script that doesn’t concretely exist as much as it hangs in the air like a fine vapor was too much for Swanberg to resist. And so he’s back with “24 Exposures,” a typically Swanberg-ian take on a murder mystery that doesn’t exactly hang together as it goes flickering by.
In the opening moments of “24 Exposures,” we watch as Billy (filmmaker Adam Wingard, who Swanberg worked with on the first “V/H/S”) photographs a woman as she flops around an apartment, exposing her breasts. It’s unclear whether or not Billy is a professional (or a “professional”), since he comes across as such a creepy weirdo, although it turns out he is. He’s made even creepier by the fact that he supplements his artistic income by shooting crime scene photos for the local police department.
Billy lives with his girlfriend Alex (Caroline White), who is unreasonably adorable and who is able to coerce some of Billy’s nubile photography subjects into joining them for clumsy threesomes in their crummy apartment. The photos Billy shoots are what he describes as “personal fetish” projects, meaning that they are designed with the sole intention of getting himself (and nobody else) off. And they have a tendency to bleed into his work for the police force, with topless young things posed in ghoulish tableaus of rape, murder, and suicide that only someone with a mind as twisted as his would find at all erotic.
Then, of course, there are murders.
The opening title sequence for “24 Exposures” has a wonderfully lurid vibe, staged like a series of pulp novel covers (or the infinitely more complex title sequence from Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”). And you can tell that Swanberg is riffing on a number of influential thrillers, since everything from Michael Pressburger’s “Peeping Tom” to erotic thrillers like “Basic Instinct” is referenced, either explicitly or on a nearly subliminal level. (Both “Blow Up” and “Blow Out” seem to have been key, as well.) But it never works out like it’s supposed to, like the title sequence promises it’s going to, and that’s for a number of reasons.
For one, the entire murder plot is kind of dopey. It seems that a number of the young women Billy is interacting with are turning up dead, artfully posed in the same fashion as one of Billy’s photographs. Swanberg shows us those dead bodies but, thanks to his purposefully elliptical editing, it’s not entirely sure what we’re seeing. Is this a real dead body? Or one of Billy’s sicko photo shoots? Has this already happened? Or is it an omen of things to come? There’s a point to this, for sure, about how fantasy and reality intermingle and how obsession can sometimes reach a tipping point and turn into something far more dangerous, but it often gets lost in the muddle.
The only person who seems genuinely interested in sorting out the mystery (if not outright solving it) is a detective named Bamfeaux (played by another “V/H/S” confederate, writer Simon Barrett). Bamfeaux has a failing marriage and suicidal tendencies, and like the rest of the characters, eats dry cereal out of a bowl, picking up the flakes and munching on them one… by… one. Bamfeaux is suspicious of Billy, but since they’re colleagues, and because he’s enchanted by this glittery netherworld Billy has fashioned for himself full of willing, submissive young women who drop their tops at the first sight of a telephoto lens, he doesn’t seem all that concerned.
But the biggest problem with “24 Exposures” is that Swanberg doesn’t seem to be properly committed to the genre. In order to craft a crackling mystery, you have to have a firm knowledge of the material and some kind of technical proficiency; both of these are required to properly lay out the procedural elements of the crime and the way that suspects, red herrings and genuine villains crisscross and overlap. Swanberg doesn’t give a fuck about any of this. Most of the movie centers on two or three people talking in a room, and most of these people aren’t real actors in the professional sense of the word, so the dialogue is often stilted and awkward.
At some point, a waitress and new model for Billy (played by Helen Rogers, who made Swanberg’s “V/H/S” segment genuinely unforgettable), enters the story with a black eye, delivered by her abusive boyfriend. It’s a misdirection that is so loud and obnoxiously obvious that it actively detracts from the story. Like so much of the movie, this wrinkle feels like an obligation Swanberg feels to the genre instead of something he’s genuinely inspired by. It's a shame, because what his “V/H/S” segment showed was that he was able to craft a suspenseful, funny, clever bit of B-grade goodness using the same grungy aesthetic that he’s developed (without ever refining) over the past half decade.
If “Drinking Buddies” was a staggering, drunken lurch toward the mainstream, then “24 Exposures” is a big leap backwards into his indie world comfort zone. At the end of the movie’s brief hour + runtime, Swanberg has both presented a halfway satisfying conclusion to the movie’s limp whodunit, only to undo all of that with a final sequence that piles on the metaphysical implications and psychological hooey, to the point that even the attempted murder in the bathtub sequence lacks any punch. “24 Exposures” has a handful of interesting ideas—and a lot of cute topless girls—but it doesn’t add up to much. Swanberg has a restless creative mind and is always willing to attempt something new, but “24 Exposures” makes you wish that he had the courage of his convictions and the ability to adhere to the rules, both narrative and technical, to whatever genre that he’s welding himself to. [C-]